Tag Archives: Belgian

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: HOTEL POSEIDON (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Stefan Lernous

FEATURING: Tom Vermeir, Anneke Sluiters

PLOT: The reluctant owner of a decrepit hotel deals with an incoherent nightmare of sultry guests, a sketchy pal who’s turning the ballroom into a happening nightclub, and a “sick” aunt.

Still from Hotel Poseidon (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Although it may be lacking in narrative, if a movie can be honored as one of the weirdest ever made based purely on art direction, Hotel Poseidon is a shoo-in.

COMMENTS: Hotel Poseidon is where you go if you die in Hotel Earle and your soul can’t find its way to Heaven. The building looks like it’s been underwater for fifty years and has only recently surfaced: the daily mail arrives already soaked and caked in mud, electrical fires are so frequent they’ve become only a minor annoyance, and the lobby is so cavernous that at first you don’t even notice the body tucked away in the corner. The visual sensibility is dingy, dirty and grungy, and you half expect to see a strand of seaweed fall across the lens every now and then. The Hotel is the main character, while lead actor Tom Vermeir, in the role of depressive and put-upon owner Dave, acts as its sad-sack sidekick. Hotel Poseidon is a crumbling edifice waiting for a movie worthy of its magnificent setting—a movie that, unfortunately, never arrives.

Though Hotel Poseidon doesn’t have much story to tell, it does feature two exhibitions of inspired camerawork to showcase its astonishing set. The first is the opening shot, a spiraling pan around the hotel lobby which starts on a dead fish in a half-empty tank and spins around to survey the room’s clutter of decrepit knickknacks, peeling wallpaper, dying plants, malfunctioning equipment, and unattended fires, giving you a sense of the purgatorial landscape you’ll be inhabiting for the next ninety minutes. The other lasts for about four minutes, as the camera weaves through Dave’s encounters with the pasty-faced grotesques attending some sort of prom of the living dead that’s broken out in his newly-renovated ballroom, a sequence that somehow involves him winding up on an autopsy table before escaping into the elevator; it’s the capper to a succession intricately-choreographed shots that comprise the central “party” sequence,  the film’s best segment (which could have been a winner as a standalone short film).

If this all sounds pretty weird to you, then you’re not wrong. Hotel Poseidon trends towards a “” tag. And, in terms of art direction and cinematography, the movie is far above normal standards. Unfortunately, it succumbs to a common ailment afflicting full-length surrealist features: a failure to provide a meaningful plot structure, thematic tissue, or characters we are capable of empathizing with. There is no real story, and the few recurring subplots—a sexy young visitor who insists on renting a room despite being told the hotel is permanently closed, Dave’s ailing aunt and her pension—-circle a clogged drain for ninety minutes before the film ends up back where it started. Hotel Poseidon is simply a long succession of unsettling scenes in a common setting, many of which work on an individual level, but fail to build upon each other, leading only to a downbeat experience that’s too one-note to support the film’s length. Hotel Poseidon is the first film venture financed by the Belgian avant-garde theater company Abbatoir Fermé, and there there is great talent involved; but the technique and atmosphere languish because the film doesn’t give us much reason to care what happens to its characters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a celebration of the weird, the absurd and the surreal, constantly adding new layers of wonder, forcing its audience to sit back in submission and let the film wash over them.”–Niels Matthijs, Onderhond (festival screening)

CAPSULE: RAW (2016)

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DIRECTED BY: Julia Ducournau

FEATURING: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

PLOT: A vegetarian girl develops an insatiable craving for meat after she eats a rabbit kidney as part of a veterinary school hazing ritual.

Still from Raw (2016)

COMMENTS: As Justine, a veterinary whiz-kid, Garance Marillier seems to grow up before our eyes. She begins the film as a timid girl looking younger than her eighteen years, submissive to her parent’s cult-like adherence to a stern vegetarian creed (Mom raises holy hell when she finds a cafeteria worker has accidentally ladled a chunk of sausage into her daughters’ mashed potatoes). Later in the movie, after Justine has tasted organ meat and experienced college life, we see her gyrating drunkenly in front of a mirror in too much lipstick and a slutty dress, listening to a distaff rap about a gal who likes to “bang the dead.” A lot of people indulge in pleasures of the flesh when they go away to college, but Raw gets ridiculous.

Raw is rich with coming-of-age subtexts—sibling conflicts, youthful irresponsibility, conformity, social and intellectual insecurity, bullying, bodily changes, bulimia—all of them given an unnerving horror spin. Naturally, sex is the dominant subtext. Under peer pressure, Justine betrays her abstinence and, now conflicted, finds herself drawn towards her new carnal/carnivore nature, and the appetites and danger that comes with it.

The veterinary school setting allows Ducournau to include a lot of animalistic symbolism, which verges from the poetically frightening (a horse chained to a treadmill) to the disgusting (a cow rectum cleaned by hand). Raw‘s focus is on bodily functions—eating, puking, excreting, arousal—all of it serving to remind Justine that she, too, is an animal. There are even hints of bestiality, and at one point Justine roleplays as a dog.

Raw‘s story is told with more abstraction than is strictly necessary, making it into a somewhat dreamlike impression of the anxieties of experiencing adult freedom for the first time. The hazing rituals at veterinary college are exaggerated to a ridiculous degree: masked upperclassmen burst into freshman dorms like the secret police rounding up dissidents. The inductees are compliant, and a ritual that seems like victims being led to the gas chamber segues seamlessly into a kegger. The faculty allows students to attend class while soaked with blood. People react to severed fingers with less consternation that one might expect. A Lynchian old man playing with his dentures in the emergency room waiting area seems to be the only one in the movie who understand that something odd is going on. But you will notice. Raw is a thoroughly disturbing parable about discovering your own true nature.

After originally being released on a bare-bones DVD only, Shout! Factory gave Raw the deluxe Blu-ray treatment in 2021, complete with a director’s commentary track, interviews and Q&As, deleted scenes, and more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’ll spare you the graphic details, which is more than this fearlessly bizarre film does, but ‘Raw’ takes on the politically incorrect subject of devouring females, and lends new meaning to giving someone the finger.”–Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Sam Smith. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

274. NUIT NOIRE [BLACK NIGHT] (2005)

“Often when we go to the cinema we feel like we’re being taken for fools because things we have instantly understood are laboriously explained. Here it’s a little the other way round.”–Olivier Smolders

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Olivier Smolders

FEATURING: Fabrice Rodriguez, Yves-Marie Gnahoua, Iris Debusschere

PLOT: A solitary entomologist works at a natural history museum in a world where it is only light for fifteen seconds a day. One day, he comes home to his empty apartment and discovers an African woman sleeping in his bed. She is ill and pregnant and eventually dies, leaving him to deal with the body.

Still from Nuit Noire (2005)

BACKGROUND:

  • Olivier Smolders was born in the Congo, which explains the source of the film’s African imagery.
  • A prolific short film maker, Nuit Noire is Smolders’ only feature film to date.
  • The movie received a very limited theatrical release even in its native Belgium, and did not appear in U.S. theaters (outside of a few film festivals) at all. Little has been written about Nuite Noir in the English language (an only a little more in French).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The African woman’s dead body turning into a pupae, then splitting open as a new life emerges.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: 15 seconds of sun; elephant in the alley; African corpse cocooning

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world of eternal midnight, with troubled dreams of dead children and troubling realities of sick foreign women who mysteriously show up in your bed, Nuit Noire manipulates time and concepts in ways that only film can. One woman changes into another, and then into another. This story could not take place in the light of day.

Short clip from Nuit Noire

COMMENTS: Closeups of squirming bugs a la Blue Velvet. A reserved protagonist taking care of a sick charge in his isolated apartment a la Eraserhead. Billowing red curtains a la… every Continue reading 274. NUIT NOIRE [BLACK NIGHT] (2005)

CAPSULE: THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT (2015)

Le Tout Nouveau Testament

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Pili Groyne, Benoît Poelvoorde, Yolande Moreau,

PLOT: God, who’s something of a jerk, lives in an inaccessible high-rise apartment in Brussels; rebelling from his authoritarian control, his 10-year old daughter hacks his computer and leaks humanity’s death dates, then goes to Earth to write a new Gospel.

Still from The Brand New Testament (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In the earlier days of this site, a movie like The Brand New Testament would easily have been shortlisted as a candidate. But with available slots on the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made shrinking, the field grows more competitive by the week. In a way, with two entries already on the List, Jaco Van Dormael is a victim of his own success—and this high-concept comedy is not as weird as Toto the Hero or Mr. Nobody, although the Catherine Deneuve bestiality subplot nearly puts him over the top one more time.

COMMENTS: Since nothing can come from Nothing, God seems to be an ontological necessity. Yet, our fatally flawed world of starving children, male nipples, and Kanye singles argues against the existence of a perfect, benevolent Supreme Being. There is one way to reconcile this seeming paradox, however. What if God exists, but He’s not a pure and loving spirit: in fact, he’s not only imperfect, but a mildly sadistic bastard? Such a God would perfectly accord the necessity for a First Cause with our experience of life on this planet as frequently annoying, sometimes torturous, and genuinely tragic—besides explaining the whole “made in His image” thing.

Jaco van Dormael takes this whimsical philosophical proposition as the basis for his fantasy The Brand New Testament, a congenially blasphemous lark that winkingly rewrites Christian theology to tweak human nature. This God—played with wicked gusto by a perpetually peeved Benoît Poelvoorde in a ratty bathrobe—is a petty tyrant who delights not only in crashing planes but in setting up universal laws of annoyance, such as the cosmic rule that toast must always fall to the floor jam side down. So intolerable is his reign of terror that his eldest son, J.C., ran away from home to slum around Earth, embarrassing his father with his hippie antics. (“The kid said a lot of stuff on the spur of the moment,” God explains to a scandalized priest). J.C.’s sister, Ea, is now set to follow big bro’s example, climbing down to Earth via a magical dryer duct to escape her Father’s wrath after she hacks his computer and leaks the death dates of all of humanity, freeing them to live their remaining days to the fullest. The girl then sets about recruiting six new apostles, each of whom comes with their own mini-story, dramatized in segments like “The Gospel According to the Sex Maniac.”

The Brand New Testament is sprawling and ambitious, but despite a plot that wanders wide, it centers itself with a consistently off-center wit. The more you know your Bible, the more you’ll laugh (“not at my right hand!” objects an angry God when Ea sits down to dinner). The scenario is so absurd, and the underlying message so humanistic, that only the most humorless Bible-thumper could take offense at Poelvoorde’s clearly farcical deity. Van Dormael slips surreal gags into the interstices of the already fantastic film: an ice-skating hand, a chanson-singing ghost fish, and Deneuve’s simian liaison. The ending is a feminist apocalypse where the patriarchal God is sent into exile and the universe rebooted with flowery skies, male pregnancies, and the return of the Cyclopes.

Belgian Van Dormael’s movies are similar to the solo work of , without a giant blockbuster hit like Amelie but with an oeuvre that, overall, has been both smarter and more consistent than that of the more famous Frenchman. With a small body of only five feature films full of philosophical ambition, wit, visual imagination, and thorough weirdness, he gets my vote for the world’s most underappreciated master filmmaker.

Despite having a role that’s no bigger than any of the other six apostles, Catherine Deneuve gets third billing. You can understand why. Her iconic presence dignifies the film, and her support for the project helped Van Dormael recover from the economic disaster of Mr. Nobody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surreal comedy whose endless visual imagination matches its conceptual wit.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS (2013)

DIRECTED BY and

FEATURING: Klaus Tange, Birgit Yew, Anna D’Annunzio, Hans de Munter

PLOT: Dan Kristensen comes home from a business trip to find that his wife is missing. His investigation into her disappearance leads him down an intricate rabbit hole of murder, sex, scopophilia, demonic possession, and, especially, confusion, as he moves within the impossible spaces of his mysterious apartment building.

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With its influx of surreal imagery, bizarre plot twists, aggressive soundscapes, and grunge-decadence sets, the weirdness of The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is not in question. Its place on the List is hard to solidify, however, as its weirdness doesn’t quite compensate for the dragged-out pace, irrelevant script, and unnecessary repetition.

COMMENTS: Hurling images of kinky sex, paranormal apparitions, and violent attacks before the viewer’s eyes, all edited in quick-cut fashion: The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is quite the experience. Its filmmakers seek to unsettle and disorient, and at that they are certainly successful. Just as the regular-Joe protagonist is thrust into this impossible situation, the audience is taken on a strange and terrible journey that makes very little sense, and frustrates more than it entertains. As a whole the film is very scattered, peppered with moments of brilliance between overwrought segments of confusion. Cattet and Forzani seem to have opened up a big book of experimental film techniques and just took a stab at every trick they happened upon. Some sequences are marvelous, including a dream wherein Dan becomes stuck in a time loop, meeting and killing multiple versions of himself over and over. Another shows an older woman losing her husband to a sinister force in the room above the bedroom, as she is left with nothing to do but listen to the strange noises coming through the ceiling. Still another is filmed in a sort of fuzzy black and white time-lapse, as a woman is chased by an unknown demonic figure. Other sequences feel completely pointless, as various asides and barely connected subplots and characters appear and disappear on a whim.

This film never allows its audience to find their footing, but it also never really rewards the more loyal viewer for sticking around til the end. It was at first engrossing for its emphatic—almost combative—illegibility, bullying its way through numerous red herring plot twists and presenting an extreme giallo-throwback aesthetic. The sets are beyond beautiful, with most of the action taking place within Dan’s apartment building, surrounded by Art Nouveau filigree and deep, heady color combinations. The sheer number of bizarre happenings and nontraditional cinematic techniques employed is honestly impressive, but the constant flood of ideas eventually becomes tiresome, especially as the story (a term I use loosely here) proves more and more cyclical. There’s little momentum, and little payoff for a film that stretches very thinly over its 102 minutes. It’s clear the film would have worked better as a short, where Cattet and Forzani could have packed in all of their artsy grindhouse weirdness without wearing out their welcome. But for diehard giallo fans, it’d definitely be worth it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Formally experimental, headily disorienting and an aesthete’s wet dream, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears is a schizophrenic blend of arthouse and charnelhouse.” –Anton Bitel, Sight & Sound Magazine

CAPSULE: THE PAINTING (2011)

Le Tableau

DIRECTED BY: Jean-François Laguionie

FEATURING: Voices of Jessica Monceau, Adrien Larmande

PLOT: Figures leave the painting in which they reside and go searching for the Painter to find out why he left some of them incomplete.

Still from The Painting [Le Tableau] (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s visually imaginative and ambitious, with a few hallucinatory moments, but the morally naïve allegory adds a kitschy feel that’s incompatible with the high art graphics. If the story had been sketched out with as much loving detail as the beautiful Impressionist-styled artwork, this might have been a masterpiece, rather than something that’s just nice to look at.

COMMENTS: True to its post-Impressionist inspirations, The Painting is visually stunning. Taking its cues from early Picasso, Gauguin, and (especially) the crazy geometries and color schemes of Matisse, this movie always looks like a canvas come to life. Standout scenes include a dreamlike sequence of a magical flower observing a captive figure with its glowing eye-like stigma, a raucous animated romp across the bridges of Venice during Carnivale, and moments where the characters push through the permeable burlap canvas to emerge in the “real” world. Storywise, however, there isn’t much to The Painting. There are three classes of painted figures in the movie; the fully colored-in Allduns (who consider themselves superior and oppress the “lesser” figures), the incomplete Halfies (who may be lacking nothing more than a corner of the hem of a dress to be complete), and the Sketchies (black and white figures whose shape has only been suggested). A forbidden Romeo n’ Juliet relationship between an aristocratic Alldun and a Halfie leads the characters to leave the painting in search of answers (and hopefully a dye job) from the Painter; they move across other canvases and eventually into the Painter’s studio (where animation mixes with live action). The plot is basic, with the scarcely developing characters simply moving from one CG environment to another. Allegorically, however, The Painting has grand ambitions. It wants to be both an existentialist take on the search for the Creator and a class parable about bigotry and oppression (it also reserves a few minutes to declare its basic anti-war sentiments). By tackling two huge themes, however, director Laguionie ensures that each only gets half-sketched. The idea of the creations searching for God is an appealing conceit, but ultimately the movie has nothing to say about that ultimate reality beyond “be responsible for your own fulfillment.” We’re not convinced that the Almighty Creator is very much like a mortal painter, and so the analogy can’t satisfy our own sense of the mystery of existence. As far as the class parable goes, it’s never clear what the divisions are supposed to represent. Are the differences between the Allduns, Halfies and Sketchies racial, economic, or cognitive? Maybe the Sketchies represent the physically or mentally handicapped, who are, in some offensive sense, “incomplete” creations? At any rate, the movie’s position that the Halfies and Sketchies should “complete” themselves strikes many commentators as ironic and unsatisfactory. Shouldn’t the Allduns learn, or be forced, to tolerate those who are different, rather than the inferior classes accepting that they are defective, and figuring out how to fix themselves? These questions won’t bother youngsters, who will absorb the valuable (if insipid) lessons about tolerance and self-reliance well enough. But the movie’s failure to complete the grand philosophical goals it sets for itself makes it much like a partially unfinished artwork. Still, the part that is painted looks awfully good, and that’s enough to make it worth looking at, if not thinking about.

The French animation studio Blue Spirit produces mostly children’s television programming, but they also worked on the brilliant The Secret of Kells.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The animated film’s aesthetic employs expressionism, realism, and cubism, but the morality plays are layered on as thickly and haphazardly as a toddler’s finger painting.”–Caroline McKenzie, Slant (contemporaneous)